GAP Relay.

It’s a little after 1 am and I just started my second leg of the Great Allegheny Passage Trail Relay. It’s drizzling and temps are in the 40s. Leaves cover the trail and the smells of autumn, heightened by the dampness in the air, waft into my nostrils.

My hamstrings are tight and my knee aches. Less than 12 hours earlier, I’d run my first leg of the race — 7 miles at an 8:30 min/mile pace, pretty fast for me. I was excited. The weather was gorgeous and it’s not often that I run on such a flat, straight stretch of trail. My legs flew, but now I may have been paying for it.

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Our team at the start in Cumberland, mostly consisting of my co-workers at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, as well as some friends of co-workers. Photo: Josh Raulerson

A light comes up behind me and a woman’s voice greets me. She asks what pace I’m trying to hold. I tell her I’m currently in no position to worry about my pace — I just want my muscles to warm up and my knee pain to go away. But I think about it for a second and tell her I’d be happy with a 10 min/mile. She says she’ll run with me for a bit. The company is pleasant but honestly, I just wanted to be alone. I got my wish before too long, when she proclaimed that she was going to press on, and took off ahead of me. I was passed by a couple more folks soon after, and then I had my solitude.

I stop to take off my jacket. Although it’s raining harder now, I’m cooking. I tie it around my waist and keep plodding along. My hamstrings still won’t loosen up and my strides are short. That’s okay. This is a 9.5-mile leg. In the middle of the night. A slow plod is excusable.

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I got to hit mile 100 of the GAP Trail on my midnight run.

My headlamp illuminates eyes glowing in the woods. A deer turns and scampers away. A few miles later, a raccoon stares at me from the edge of the trail. It’s still raining, the drops illuminated by my headlamp. Parts of the trail are getting soggy now, the ruts causes by bicycle tires in soft earth filling with water. I splash straight through. I’m soaked as I can be anyway.

I force myself to not look at my watch, except for when it buzzes with the passing of every mile. 5 miles — I’m just over halfway. 6 miles, 7 miles…

My legs start to feel better and I speed up my pace. My foot is starting to hurt but I don’t care — I can run the way I want to run. The last couple of miles fly by and I pass a few people again just before the finish. My team runs over to cheer me on as I pass the slap bracelet to Josh. It’s getting pretty messy out there, I warn him, and he takes off.

We crawl back into the van and drive to the next exchange point. Dry clothes and a beer feels so good.

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This is my boss, Davitt. Davitt brought his grill and was our team chef for the weekend. We were super well fed and it was great that didn’t need to worry about the logistics of cooking or finding food.

After a couple hours at most of fitful sleep in the driver’s seat of the van, it’s time to wake up and run again. Everything hurts now. I drink some crappy coffee and feel slightly better, but I’m dreading this last run. It’s not that my legs are tired — they are — but more of an issue is the pain in my knee and even more so, my foot. This has never happened before and I’m not sure what is going on, which worries me. But it’s not bad enough that I am willing to bail, so I try to block it out and tell myself that I just need to get through 7 more miles, no matter how slowly.

But first I needed to get through the next few hours of sitting in the van, waiting for my teammates to finish their last runs. If it had been a warmer weekend, or even if it hadn’t been the first cold few days of the season, I think I would have spent more time outside stretching and properly recovering and taking care of myself between each leg. But it was cold and rainy and windy, so I stayed in the van more than I should have as my muscles cramped and tightened.

Finally, it was my turn. It had stopped raining, but the wind gusts were enough to take one’s breath away. I waited til the last second to get out of the car, when I saw Laura running down the road towards the exchange zone. She handed off the bracelet. I started running.

My foot hurt, but I tried to block it out. Whatever was going on with it, the damage was done. Hopefully it’s nothing serious and it’ll go away in a day or so.

I started getting passed by faster teams. The start of the relay was staggered yesterday, so that slower teams (we all had to give an estimated min/mile running pace when we registered) started earlier and faster teams started later in the day. This was so that the exchange zones wouldn’t have to be open as long, and everyone would finish closer together. 150 miles can really spread people out.

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One of the exchange zones.

We were in the outskirts of Pittsburgh now, and the landscape was very different than my previous runs. Instead of trees and leaves and raccoon eyes, it was gray buildings and industrial steam and office parks. A lot of the trail was paved or on sidewalks. But it was next to the river, and it was still beautiful in a different way.

The highlight of the run was the group of goats that were eating vegetation along the side of the trail, courtesy of Allegheny GoatScape, according to the accompanying sign and the woman who started a conversation when I stopped to snap a quick picture.

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Shortly after the goats, I was headed towards a sharp curve in the trail when I saw some race officials. “What number are you?,” they called out to me. I blanked and had to look down at the rumpled bib pinned to my shorts, a little confused at what was happening. According to my watch, I had another 1.5 miles to go before the exchange zone.

When I got closer, they explained to me that they had to change the location of the exchange zone, so I was done. That was great news. I was ready.

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Happy to be finished! Photo: Laura Bray

I handed off the bracelet to Josh, but afterwards my teammates and I realized that no one had told him that he would have to run the extra 1.5 miles that was cut from my run, so instead of 3, he would be doing 4.5 miles. Maybe it’s better that he doesn’t know, we reasoned, and headed towards the finish line to meet the rest of the team.

Overall, the relay was harder than I expected. Going into it, I thought about it as 3 individual runs, not taking into account only a few hours of recovery time in between, the sleep deprivation, and the fact that this was the first cold weekend of the season so my body wasn’t used to the temps. But still, I had a great time and I’ve already agreed to do it again next year.

Also, check out this awesome video that my co-worker Josh made about the event!

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Aftermath. Photo: Our bartender.
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Team PEC in Cumberland when we were all still looking fresh.

 

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